Book Review

How use of the word ‘busing’ hid deeper racial ills in Boston, elsewhere

Busing. One short word that news media used to describe racial crises in Boston and elsewhere. It still evokes haunting memories of those tumultuous times. But was it the right word?

No, Matthew F. Delmont concludes in his meticulous and insightful review of the early history of school desegregation in Northern cities and the media coverage of those efforts to achieve racial equity in public education. Delmont, an Arizona State University history professor, so disputes the media’s embrace of the term that he largely renders it “busing” throughout, viewing it as euphemism and sign of denial.

“Why Busing Failed” devotes single chapters to New York City, Chicago, and Pontiac, Mich., but two to Boston. The first recounts the rebuffed efforts of local NAACP leaders in the early 1960s to secure quality schools for black children — “not desegregation,” as one leader explained then. The second examines media coverage after the federal court order took effect in 1974, and hostile white protesters hit the streets.


The book’s title is rhetorical: Delmont does not accept the conventional wisdom that school desegregation failed. He concedes it wasn’t achieved “more fully” but cites recent long-term studies that determined “it provided opportunities to black students without diminishing opportunities for white students,” although those “gains were limited.”

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Why? Back to that word, busing. Using it as a substitute for desegregation originated in 1957 among white parents in New York City and was adopted in news reports. The term emerged in a controversy over the transfer of a few hundred black students in the nation’s largest school district.

Making a common mode of student transportation shorthand for a matter of constitutional law obscured the goals of black parents and the rationale behind court orders. “[S]chool desegregation was about the constitutional rights of black students, but the story of ‘busing’ has been told and retold as a story about the feelings and opinions of white people,” Delmont observes.

Before desegregation in Boston, he notes, half of middle-school students and 85 percent of high-school students rode a bus to school. To the extent “neighborhood schools” existed, they were elementary schools. It was no accident they were segregated. US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. found that “district lines weave in and out,” ensuring that “predominantly white areas are cut away from predominantly black areas.”

By casting white protesters as against “busing,” rather than desegregation, news organizations distinguished them in the public mind from retrograde whites in a South segregated by state laws. “Television played a crucial role in defining Boston in 1974 as a ‘crisis’ situation similar to Little Rock in 1957, but television broadcasts did not present the Boston story with the same moral clarity.”


One reason for this, Delmont suggests, is white journalists could not conceive of their hometown schools as being segregated like those in the South. Nor could school officials. In 1963, Boston’s all-white School Committee voted against even discussing de facto segregation. New York City’s superintendent decried the official use of the term in the 1950s.

Delmont’s critique is tough but fair. His case might have added the media ethics standard for using neutral language when reporting on public controversies. Readers are left to wonder whether any journalists challenged white parents who asserted a “right” to neighborhood schools — based on what law?

The heat of Boston’s desegregation era has faded, and signs have emerged the city finally may be ready for an honest reassessment. That makes Delmont’s conclusion a timely warning for a majority-minority city and school system: “ ‘busing’ failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts, and the news media valued the desires of white parents more than the rights of black students.”


Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

By Matthew F. Delmont

University of California, 304 pp., $29.95

Kenneth J. Cooper, a former Globe staffer, is coauthor with Don West of “Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership.’’